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Do Lawyers Dislike Innovation? A Historical Perspective

Emily Bogin |

American lawyers have historically been averse to big changes – which makes recent innovation in the legal industry particularly interesting.

The rise of a new class of innovative lawyers and tech-savvy law firms is commonly understood as a disruption to the legal industry. Forbes articles note surprise, with titles like, “Legal Innovation no longer Oxymoron.” Currently, however, the median technology spend is $240K and lawyers are working to increase “the automation of routine tasks, enhance work processes and support data analytics that allow improved data analytics,” according to an HBR Consulting study.

Michigan State University offers its law students a class in which they use agile leadership strategies to fix automation problems in the legal industry, and large corporate legal departments like the one at NetApp have recently recently pushed workflow automation as a key priority. However, looking more closely at the disposition of lawyers and the types of innovation they practice, it is appropriate to consider whether innovation disrupts the industry or is part of its natural evolution. Are lawyers really adverse to change, or is it our language around innovation that makes it seem so novel?

The least prone to revolution

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville praises lawyers as the most powerful counterpoison against the excesses and passions of democracy, and, as such, the least prone to revolution. He writes extensively on their conservative nature: “In America there are no nobles or literary men, and the people are apt to mistrust the wealthy; lawyers consequently form the highest political class and the most cultivated portion of society. They have therefore nothing to gain by innovation.”

Lawyers, with their reverence for law and their aristocratic love of order, would be uniquely qualified to keep order among a freedom-loving people: “When the American people are intoxicated by passion or carried away by the impetuosity of their ideas, they are checked and stopped by the almost invisible influence of their legal counselors.” The conservatism of lawyers falls from several places.

First, Tocqueville writes that men who study law become disposed to “certain habits of order, a taste for formalities, and a kind of instinctive regard for the regular connection of ideas.” These characteristics make lawyers which naturally render them very hostile to the revolutionary spirit and the unreflecting passions of the multitudes.”

The rigorous study of laws is then compounded by the ways in which lawyers argue cases: American law is derived from a study of precedents. These precedents naturally keep the legal profession inaccessible to laypeople. In France, unlike the US, laws are not determined on a basis of what has been done but rather on what “should have been done.” As such, French cases can be understood by everyone and French lawyers are not separated into a class as distinct as American lawyers. [1]

We have to be conscious of how Tocqueville uses the word “revolution”…

Owing in part to the status lawyers receive as translators of what appears to be an occult science, in part to their specialized schooling, and in part to the lack of an aristocratic class in America, lawyers occupy a high station in American society.

First, we have to be conscious of how Tocqueville uses the word “revolution,” and how we might use it at ThinkSmart. When Tocqueville speaks of revolution, he is literally writing about overthrowing the government, or secession, or a military coup.

So what’s driving today’s legal tech innovations?

Tocqueville’s claim to the anti-revolutionary nature of lawyers is interesting in light of the growing “disruptors” in the legal industry. At ThinkSmart, our transformational approach to that industry forces us to consider not only how we are changing the way legal operations work, but how this is a representation of fundamental changes in American society.

Tocqueville’s commentary on lawyers is embedded within a chapter titled, “Causes which mitigate the tyranny of the majority in the United States;” lawyers are one of the antidotes to the problems of democracy, along with strong local government and trial by jury. Since then, not only have we faced questions like, “is, then, the profession dropping into a business?” but we have noticed that today, legal work is often done by information workers, not lawyers.

When we come to understand the role of information workers in the legal world today, the introduction of new technologies and time-saving tricks starts to make more sense. While Tocqueville would only call a violent regime change a true revolution, the legal ops world is certainly undergoing some dramatic transformations.

Those changes involve the advent of technologies that allow greater efficiency and productivity, of course, and that supplies a compelling business basis for legal professionals to adopt platforms like workflow automation.

[1] “The French lawyer is simply a man extensively acquainted with the statutes of his country; but the English or American lawyer resembles the hierophants of Egypt, for like them he is the sole interpreter of an occult science.”

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